Managing from Afar: How to Run a Remote Team

Wade Foster
Wade Foster / October 24, 2017

In the last few years, several companies, including IBM and Yahoo!, have banned remote work—and many people continue to debate the merits of remote work. On the other end of the spectrum: companies like Automattic, Buffer, and GitLab that are successful as 100% remote teams. Unfortunately, information about how to set up remote work so that you and your team can be successful is still scarce. We want to share what we've learned so far.

Zapier has always run as a remote team. We've grown from three founders to over 110 people working remotely in 13 countries. We've gotten a lot of questions about how we make it work, so this post will explain that.

Now, if you want to debate what's best—remote work or co-located work—this chapter isn't for you. But, if you want some ideas on how one team has set up their team to be successful at remote work then stick around. This post is for you.

Our Journey

From day one, (October 2011) Zapier has always been a distributed team. Even though I and my co-founders Bryan and Mike lived in the same city, we had different schedules and were bootstrapping Zapier on the side of our day jobs and school. We worked on Zapier in every spare moment we each had, but those moments didn't magically line up at the same time where we could work in the same room, so by necessity we became a remote team.

In June of 2012, we were accepted into Y Combinator and moved into a shared apartment in Mountain View, California. The next three months were the only period in our company's history where everyone has been in the same city at the same time.

In August of 2012, Mike moved back to Missouri while his girlfriend (now wife) was graduating law school, and in October of 2012, we started hiring. And since we were already a distributed team, it made sense to keep moving that way since we could hire people we knew were awesome, but just didn't live in the places we lived.

Our first hire was Micah Bennett, Zapier's head of support who lives in Chicago. Between October 2012 and July 2014, we added eight more people to the team, with members living in Missouri, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Tennessee. And then we had our first international hires in August 2014, with blog writer Matthew Guay based in Bangkok, Thailand and full-stack engineer Rob Golding in Nottingham, UK.

Over the last six years, we've learned a few things about building and managing a remote team. There are others with more experience at this than us and with larger teams (Auttomattic, for example, has nearly 500 employees in over 50 countries). Our story and companies like these have proven that it's possible to scale even when you're fully remote. Whether you're a small team or a large one, if you want to dip your toes into remote work, consider this your crash course.

3 Ingredients of a Successful Remote Work Setup

It's highly unlikely you could pluck any random set of people, at any random moment in history, dispersed around the globe, put them together and expect them to build something amazing.

We've found there are three important ingredients to making remote work, well, work: Team, Tools, and Process.

Team

By far, the most important ingredient is the team. Not everyone can work well in a remote environment. Not everyone can manage a remote team (though I suspect with a bit of time and learning, a lot of managers could figure out how to make it work). Therefore, it's important to assemble a team that's capable of executing in a remote environment. Here's what has made the best remote workers for us:

1. Hire Doers

Doers will get stuff done even if they are in Timbuktu. You don't have to give doers tasks to know that something will get done. You'll still have to provide direction and guidance around the most important things to be executed, but in the absence of that, a doer will make something happen. One of Zapier's core values is "default to action"—teammates who embody that value get work done.

2. Hire people you can trust

Remote work stops working when you can't trust the person on the other end of the line. If you continually find yourself worrying what someone is doing, then you are spending brain cycles focusing on something other than the product or customers. Trust is key.

3. Trust the people you hire

The flip side of this is you also need to exhibit trust with the people you hire. As a manager, you need to learn to manage by expectations rather than by "butts in seat," so make sure you can show trust in those you hire.

4. Hire people who can write

In a co-located office, a lot of information is shared in person. In a remote situation, everything is shared via written communication. Communication is one of the most important parts of remote team. Therefore, good writers are critical to a team's success.

5. Hire people who are ok without a social workplace

It'll be important to try to create some social aspects with a remote team. But the truth is that remote workplaces are usually less social than co-located ones. People on remote teams need to be ok with that and have their own social support system. And the best remote workers will thrive in this type of environment. That said, as you grow you might find multiple people in cities and some social environment will emerge. For example, we currently have ten people in Austin the routinely meet in person for co-working and other social events.

Tools

Our current remote software stack

Tools are important in a remote workplace because they enable you to better organize the team and keep everyone on the same page. And while the exact tools aren't super important, you likely will need a tool in certain categories like group chat and video conferencing to make remote successful.

In a co-located facility, you can always round up the team for an all-hands meeting to steer everyone on track. In a remote team, you'll need the right tools to make sure everyone stays on the same page and can continue to execute without a physical person standing next to them.

Here are some tools we've found handy as a rapidly growing team. These tools have changed quite a bit over the years. (Check out previous versions of this post to see what's changed.)

1. Slack

Chilling in Slack

Slack is our virtual office. If you're in Slack then you're at work. A group chat room like Slack is also great at creating camaraderie.

Depending on your team size, you'll want to make use of channels in Slack as well. At a certain size, it can start to get noisy, so it makes sense to section off rooms into things like "water cooler", "engineering", "marketing", etc. I would hold off on this as long as possible, though, when you're a small team.

At around 10 people, we started creating multiple channels. We now have over 100 channels. Active ones include functional channels like #marketing, #support and #hacking, along with project-specific channels like #team-growth, and social channels like #fun-cooking. Prepending Slack channels with words like "fun-" or "feed-" help organize and communicate to new teammates what can quickly become an unruly list of channels in Slack.

2. Async

Zapier Using Async

Async is an internal tool we built. It's sort of like a blog meets reddit. This is the place where we surface important conversations that might get lost in the fast-paced Slack. It replaces internal email and acts as a great archive for anyone on the team to reference old discussions and keep up with company updates. Slack is where we talk about work, while Async is where we share work with the rest of the team.

3. Trello

Zapier Roadmap

Trello acts as our default roadmap. Anytime we have something we'd like to do, we add it to a to-do list in Trello. In most situations, you'll find yourself creating way too many cards trying to do too many things. The trick we use to avoid getting card overload in Trello is each card needs to have a detailed description of what the feature is, why it's important, and what the results of a successful implementation of this feature should look like.

We also use Trello boards for keeping track of our marketing campaigns, support documentation, and really any project that needs to get done.

This works great for remote teams, because if anyone in the company is looking for something to do, they can just go pick a card off the Trello board and know that it's going to be a positive feature for the product/company.

We love Trello, but there are also other great project management apps that you might use too. And as we've grown, certain teams have found they prefer certain tools to Trello for managing projects or process. We haven't felt the need to standardize, so give teams the opportunity to use the tools they feel most productive with.

4. GitHub

We use Issues and pull requests for specific purposes at Zapier. Much like how GitHub uses GitHub to build GitHub, we use GitHub to build Zapier. GitHub houses all code related project management. Pull Requests are how we ship feature, while issues are reserved for bugs only. Feature requests and planning happen in Trello, a planning doc, or another tool like Airtable.

5. LastPass Enterprise

Since we have logins to hundreds of services—those we use as a company or integrate with as part of our service, it's helpful for anyone who walks into the company to be able to access any of them without having to fire off an instant message or wait for an email reply. With LastPass, any teammate can log in to any of the services we use or integrate with without having to know the login credentials.

6. Google Docs & Quip

For almost any other documentation, Google Docs is great. We share spreadsheets for ad hoc analysis of key metrics. We share spreadsheets with team info and other vital info that might be used later. We share documents for contracts and records. Anything that might get used multiple times should be documented, and Google Docs is an easy, shared environment to make that happen. All you need is a Google account (or, in a company setting, a Google Apps account.)

Google Docs is not ideal for organization and collaboration, though. We've found Quip great for our internal knowledgebase. Any documentation that needs to teach someone how to do something—such as how to do QA testing or format a post for the blog—gets added to a Quip doc and folder so others can quickly access the collective brain of Zapier.

7. Zoom

We've tried a bunch of video conferencing tools over the years, from Google Hangouts and Skype to GoToMeeting. As we've grown, we've found Zoom to be the most reliable and clear for large group video calls. We have a weekly all-hands meeting in Zoom that's essential for putting faces behind the names of our many teammates and gives us all a chance to just hang out for a bit as a company, virtually.

8. HelloSign

Every now and then, you and your employees might need to sign something. Spare yourself the hassle of printing out the document, signing it, scanning it back onto your machine, and sharing the document with the next person that signs and instead just use HelloSign. It'll make your head hurt a lot less.

9. Help Scout

Everyone at Zapier has a weekly customer support shift, because we believe this "all hands support" enhances our customers' experience and our own product understanding—we experience Zapier the product as our customers do. Help Scout is the tool we use to support our customers day in and day out. Its reporting features help us find ways we can be more efficient in our ticket responses, tags help us categorize conversations, and integrations (of course) with other apps make sure we can keep on top of support requests in our favorite communication tools.

Processes

The third ingredient in a powerful remote team is process. I know most people don't like to think about process, and process might feel boring and rigid. But if you think of process as "how we work," it starts to feel more powerful.

Good processes let you get work done in the absence of all else. It provides structure and direction for getting things done.

That doesn't mean processes should be rigid, unchanging, or pointless, though. Process, at a small company, is more about providing a feedback loop so that you can measure progress for both the company and the people in the company.

Here are a few of the processes we use to run Zapier. Or as I like to call them: How We Work.

1. Everyone does support

The customer is our lifeblood. We strive everyday to solve our customers' problems and help make their job just a little bit easier. When everyone on the team does support, everyone gets to hear the voice of the customer.

Also, the people who build the product also end up supporting the product. If a customer is angry about a bug, then the person who introduced said bug is going to hear about it and fix it right away.

Read more about how we do support here.

2. A culture of shipping

As we've grown, maintaining a culture of shipping has been crucial. The best way we've found to do this is to keep product teams small.

We now have over 30 people in product, design, and engineering functions. To keep the focus on shipping, we divide up into small teams—usually 3 to 8 people with differing skill sets. The base roles are a PM, an engineer, and a designer.

These teams have a singular mission, for example, improve onboarding. They then have full autonomy to set their own roadmap to make this happen. With that autonomy, they also hold responsibility for the success of their initiatives. This works well, since small teams can move and ship fast and also appreciate the autonomy and responsibility for their own projects.

3. Weekly Hangouts

Every Thursday morning at 9am PDT, we get together for lightning talks, demos, and/or interviews. With over 100 people in seven major departments and even more smaller teams, it's hard to see everyone on a weekly basis. These hangouts are a chance to say "hi!" to folks you may not normally see.

These hangouts are also a good chance to learn something new. Each week, someone inside the team does a lightning talk or demo on something interesting. We've had folks share their latest project, new teammates share fun facts about themselves and their backgrounds, and leadership members conduct well-being workshops through these hangouts.

The meetings happen at Thursday at 9am because that's roughly the best time for a geographically dispersed team so that no one's weekend or daily schedule gets disturbed too much.

Many teams do these weekly meetings as All-Hands Meetings. In a remote team that's across many timezones, this becomes an exclusionary event. As a result, this meeting becomes more about camaraderie and showing off the work of the company. We record these so folks who can't attend are able to catch up. But we're careful to avoid core strategic topics which typically are discussed in Slack, Async, or a Zoom call that can make sure to incorporate all the relevant teammates for that decision. Teammates in Asia-Pacific time zones have also organized their own version of weekly hangouts to get this same camaraderie, in a more convenient timeframe for them.

4. Pair Buddies

As we've grown, it can be harder to know all your teammates. One easy way to mitigate that is to have folks on the team get paired up with one other teammate at random each week for a short 10-15 minute pair call. We use this to chat about life, work, or whatever random thing seems interesting. Sometimes cool new product features come out of these, other times it's just good fun. Regardless, it helps everyone better know their teammates.

5. Weekly One-on-Ones

In every job I ever had (even co-located ones), there wasn't enough feedback between me and my supervisor. So at Zapier, we set up a recurring weekly event with each team member I manage where we both jump on Zoom to chat about how work is going. These one on ones follow roughly the format outlined by the Manager Tool's podcast.

We use a feedback tool called Small Improvements to run our 1:1 sessions.

In the past, I did one-on-ones with everyone. However, around 15 people, this got to be too hard to keep up with everyone on a meaningful level. At 15, I split my focus on the support and marketing team while Bryan and Mike focus on the engineering and product teams respectively. As we've scaled, we've built a more traditional management structure. So I have seven people that report to me: CTO, CPO, CFO, Head of Marketing, Head of Support, Head of Platform, and Head of Partnerships. These people all have teams that report to them as well. This more formal hierarchy has helped keep everyone on the team feel more engaged with the company because they have a manager that can help make sure to align their own career interests with the strategic goals of the company.

6. A culture of accountability

People often ask "how do you know if employees are actually working?" Any easy way we know is with Friday updates. Each Friday, every person on the team posts an update to Async about what they shipped that week and what they are working on for the next week.

This makes it easy to keep in the loop on projects and also holds everyone at Zapier accountable to everyone else to do their part.

7. Building culture in person

The Zapier team in Toronto

In person interaction is valuable for any team. There is definitely something unique that happens when teammates can work on something in person—tap someone on the shoulder and point to your screen to go over something, or share downtime with fun games and casual banter. So we strive to bring the team together two times a year somewhere cool.

We've visited Washington, Colorado, Alabama, Utah, Texas, Vancouver, and Toronto on company retreats.

In addition to the all-company get togethers, departments hold their own retreats and small groups of us might get together on an ad hoc basis throughout the year to coordinate the start of a major project or feature. Usually this is just one person jumping on a flight to visit another person or, if more than a couple of staff members live in close proximity (we have many teammates in Austin and Portland, for example), they'll have impromptu co-working sessions.

If this seems expensive, that's because it is. But the great part is that you'll likely have the money to cover this plus more since you don't have to pay for a central office that everyone is working in.

8. Automate anything that can be automated

The core of Zapier is automation. There are a couple reasons why we automate things. One, it allows us to keep the team size small since we don't need people on staff to perform repetitious, mundane and boring tasks. Two, it lets teammates focus on high impact work nearly all of the time rather than figuring out less impactful things, like the proper deploy commands. Our philosophy is: If you're going to do something two or more times, automate it so you can eliminate busywork and do more meaningful work. We believe these so strongly that one of the Zapier core values is "Don't be a robot, build the robot."

Learn From Others

A lot of this has been knowledge built up from others. Unfortunately, not many people write about the topic of remote working and how to manage it.
The best way to learn about remote working is to ask other people who do remote working. I've learned a ton from people like Lance Walley at Chargify, Joel Gascoigne at Buffer, the entire Basecamp (formerly 37Signals) team, Zach Holman at GitHub, and a slew of other founders and remote workers.

If you are looking for other great resources, here are some that are worth checking out:

  1. Ryan Carson on managing 40 people remotely
  2. Ryan Carson Mixergy Course
  3. Almost any talk by Zach Holman on how GitHub works
  4. Wide Teams puts out a great weekly podcast about remote work
  5. Steve Smith on Optimizing for Happiness
  6. Adii Pienaar on trusting people
  7. Adii Pienaar on the challenge of remote working
  8. 37Signals' book Remote.

Hopefully, this chapter's insights into how one team manages a remote team inspires you. Don't take this as universal truth, though. One of the beauties of a remote team is that because remote work feels like an experiment, everything else feels like it can be more experimental too. So go ahead and experiment! The biggest wins aren't usually found in a post on the internet, but in what you discover on your own. And if you have tips, tricks, or best practices of your own, we'd love to hear them, too, in the comments or on Twitter.


Keep reading: Check out even more remote work articles.

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